Gear Bag: Five Great Tips for Dealing with Cables

If your lighting gear includes sync cords, power cables and/or extension cords, this could happen to you. Don't laugh, pictured is my actual Ancient Sync Cord Burial Ground from the past 20+ years.

But over that time I have also gotten a lot better at dealing with cords, and picked up a few cool tips along the way. Keep reading for my favorite five.


1. Cable Ties: A Godsend

I can't tell you how much I love these things. They are cheap ($7 for 100) and that's a good thing because you'll be glad you bought a hundred.

The roll of 100 is seen at top, followed by a single tie and then a cable thusly contained. If it's a cable in my house, it gets one of these. For sync cords and power cords, it turns a pile of spaghetti into an easily manageable collection of cords.

Better power cables will come from the factory with the ties included (my Profoto power cords did). It took me about a week to realize I wanted all of my cables to behave like this.

2. Also: Use Them For Strain Relief

When the wires are uncoiled, I use the cable ties to fasten the cords to my light stand. Whether sync or power, you don't want the strain to be at the connection itself. You want it to be absorbed by the cable tie.

Also, securing your cords further down the light stand makes the whole operation much more stable should the cord get yanked or caught by a passerby, etc. No brainer.

3. Color-Code Your Coiled Sync Cords

My sync bag (remotes, cords, extra batteries, etc.) is kinda universal. So I pack it separately from my other gear in a small, swappable case. That way you know you have everything you need (and backups) to sync your flash, every time.

But that means I have different connectors on different cords. PC for my cameras and SB-800s, ⅛" for my LP's and Einsteins and ¼" for Profoto. They are all very easy to find in the sync bag because of color-coded plugs: red for ⅛", blue for ¼" and bare for the $@#! PC cords.

At a glance, I can easily tell which is which. At top is ⅛" <-> ⅛", bottom left is ⅛" <-> PC and bottom right is ¼" <-> PC.

4. Swap Power Cords for Better Lengths

Often the power cords that come with flashes are not the lengths you need. (Usually, not long enough.) Rather than use extension cords all of the time, you can cheaply swap out to different cords if your flash uses a common plug at the flash end.

Remember, if you are going to go to a longer power cord, go for a gauge thicker than your original OEM cord. (Here's why.)

Whether swapping out to nice, long power cords or short, stubby cords for my Einsteins and Vagabond battery packs, is my favorite source in the US. Great quality, service and price.

5. And While we are Shopping at MonoPrice...

If you are on the ⅛" sync cord bandwagon at both ends (i.e., thru use of a Universal Translator on your camera) you can get your sync cords for next to nothing there, too. As in, like, $2.

6. Be Kind to Your Extension Cords

Did we say five tips? What the hell, special today: buy five, get one free.

Using extension cords with your AC flashes? Don't coil them around your elbow if you can help it. It makes sense (i.e. it's easy) while you are coiling, but introduces twists and tangles. Learn to coil cable like the pros. Here's a dude with a British accent from the London School of Sound to teach you how:

He's doing mic cables. But this works great for a 100-foot extension cord, too. (Just make bigger loops.) By using this coil over/coil under system, your extension cords will unfurl tangle-free every time. And trust me, with long cords that's a godsend, too.


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Blogger lv pg said...

Thanks for posting. This will be mandatory viewing for any assistant that works with me...after I practice it a bit myself. Funny how the simplest things can be improved for the better.

May 29, 2013 12:27 AM  
Blogger Joel Wright said...

For real, son.

May 29, 2013 12:32 AM  
Blogger Carsten Bockermann said...

While the cable ties are $6.98 at, the same pack of 100 is listed at 125.93 Euros (about $162) at Amazon Germany. Wow!

May 29, 2013 1:46 AM  
Blogger Allan Attridge said...

Very few things make me cringe more than being unable to stop a well meaning individual from winding my cables for me before the damage is done. While I always appreciate the effort, I'd rather just do it myself.

May 29, 2013 3:59 AM  
Blogger GrumpyOldMan said...

With regards velcro cable ties.
If you're real cheap like me, just buy regular velcro by the roll and use it as is.

May 29, 2013 9:00 AM  
Blogger Tor Ivan Boine said...

You still use cables? isnt pocket wizards and the likes sufficient?

Anyways, good tips :)

May 29, 2013 9:01 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Yep. Always cover my bases.

May 29, 2013 9:05 AM  
Blogger JS said...

Solid, solid advice. Thanks.

May 29, 2013 9:11 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

Great Advice
nothing worse than a cable that winds up in a mess as you try to unwind it.

all my power leads are wound up in using the under, over technique, and always look nice and neat and run out straight when i go to use them.

I hate using my wife's extension leads, i have tried to educate her, but she still winds the leads round her arm, and using them drives me nuts - my solution was to buy my own leads !

and thanks for the tip on Monoprice, i will be getting some short, long and sync cables from them soon

And we need more posts like this ! Strobist is an awesome resource for photographers, but recently it has been more photo oriented, and less helpful tips
I love the helpful tips like this !

May 29, 2013 9:11 AM  
Blogger Steve Nelson said...

I learned to coil cables with the alternating twist from an audio engineer while in college and have done that obsessively ever since - even with my garden hoses! The upside is lovely, cooperative cables - even ones that didn't start out that way will "learn" over time. The down side is if you aren't paying attention when you uncoil a cable it will form repeating knots. Always amusing. Thanks for helping evangelize the "right" way to treat cables!

May 29, 2013 12:20 PM  
Blogger NYSTAN said...

Here is one more tip for you, if you are interested....instead of a solid color at each end, you might find using stripes and extra handy trick....I used to do a lot of live audio work and had a similar situation with mic cables...assuming you carry double or triple backups, if you take all the 'red' cables and number them with one, two or three thin red stripes on each end, you can easily identify them...especially when one goes bad....when you get back to the studio, it is easy to recognize that you are now missing cable number ____ (because you have already tossed the bad one out ((Never keep a bad cable!!!) The other place where these cheapo velcro ties are handy are around the back of my computer and hard drives....and EVERY AC CABLE has one, no matter the purpose. I mean, this is why God created VELCRO, which is the second greatest invention (ok, third if you want to include the ten commandments) after GAFF TAPE. And thank you for reaffirming I am not the only obsessive compulsive, anal retentive gear head in the universe!

May 29, 2013 1:54 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I learned the second technique (roll thumb) in the 1970s. I use it with all small cable, sound, electric extension cords, etc.

I've found most people resistant to the idea. I was at a coccert-in-the-park where the crew was raping mic cables around their elbow 8-(

May 29, 2013 1:58 PM  
Blogger Jim Bessette said...

Carsten, there are various "quality" levels of these ties, and they come in many different sizes. Some you can barely tell they're Velcro(tm), others are "hairy" and strong. Look around for the type you want, the cheap ones don't hold as well. Also, length varies too.

May 29, 2013 1:59 PM  
Blogger Murlle said...

What kind of light stand is that with the curved handles?

May 29, 2013 4:11 PM  
Blogger dom said...

My geek needs have been met for the day and once again you have changed my everyday work life for the better.

May 29, 2013 4:53 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


It's a LumoPro C-Stand

May 29, 2013 5:00 PM  
Blogger Matthew R said...

And remember to unplug all of those cords and get them off the floor as soon as you strike the set! People tend to get stop paying attention as soon as you yell "wrap!" and forget to look where they're going. I had someone trip over a cord once and d*mn near take down a boomed dynalite head hovering over a shiny (and scratch-free) new car. Insurance covers the damage but you still look silly in front of the client.

May 29, 2013 6:31 PM  
Blogger Will Hore-Lacy said...

Check ebay for cable ties, I can't get them quite that cheap in Australia but they aren't too bad if you look around.
FYI the advantage of the alternate coil technique is not only that it keeps cables neat but it prevents cables with twisted pair cores (like microphone cables) from getting damaged by getting twisted up.
Finally, if you are using the alternate coil technique it is double important to use the cable tie to make sure the ends are held on the correct side of the coil otherwise you get knots. They are easier to remove than with twisted coil but you'll still get them.

May 30, 2013 2:12 AM  
Blogger Mr C said...

Gadzooks! I learnt how to coil cables sailing and have clearly been doing it wrong for 30 years. Great post!!!

May 30, 2013 2:44 AM  
Blogger noblog said...

While the cables are cheep, I wonder if there are adapters available so you could use 1/8 cables only and turn every flash/camera into a 1/8 device.

May 30, 2013 12:25 PM  
Blogger Cliff Burns said...

With regards to color coding, I don't use red unless the cable is faulty. That way, I can quickly identify cables that need to be repaired, or which ones not to use before I have time to repair them. It can also stop another crew member from picking that cable up and using it elsewhere.

I also cringe when people don't know how to properly roll cables.

May 30, 2013 3:42 PM  
Blogger Ellis Vener said...

I now like the CableCuff over velcro wrappers. They come in several sizes but this is the link to the large version:

May 30, 2013 4:33 PM  
Blogger Robert said...

Thank you for number 6. I got to 5 and thought "But he hasn't talked about coiling them!" With a few fewer elbow winders, you've made the world a better place.

May 30, 2013 8:55 PM  
Blogger Michael Carney said...

Power cables don't need to be, and shouldn't be, over/under coiled. They should be coiled as they naturally fall. BNC and XLR audio cables need to be over/under coiled because of their construction.

Coiling power cables over/under is a sure way to make enemies in the grip/electric department of a film (even a small one). Have you used three phase cable for large (like 5Kw+) generators to a distro box? They're large and heavy, even in 25' lenghts. There's no way in heck you can over/under that. Similarly, 60 amp bates cables won't get coiled over/under (you'll make a mess) and standard 20 amp stingers (extension cords) won't either.

Your average photog will probably never run into 3 phase, or bates cables but if you work on even an independent production of a moderate budget (or assist on one of Gregory Crewdson's photo shoots!) you'll find out real quick which cables get coiled which way.

Learning the right methods is great. Making sure you apply the right methods to the right equipment is best.

May 30, 2013 11:36 PM  
Blogger Gordon Huston said...

Just to echo what Michael C said. On any motion picture set, or if you rent gear from a grip electric house, never over/under any power cable. It's a dead give away that you have never worked in that environment. The camera department, the sound department, and the video department will over/under all of their cables, but in the electrical department everything is carefully coiled and tied tightly. Years ago when I was an eager an assistant cameraman I was helping the electricians wrap after a long night of shooting. I was using the over/under technique to wrap stingers. The gaffer thanked me for the help but made me redo all the stingers that I had wrapped. He told me to roll them clockwise and make them the size of a basketball. Remember that and you will look like an old pro if you ever end up on a film set. It may not make sense, but it's the standard.

May 31, 2013 10:27 AM  
Blogger Yugo said...

Great piece! Is it just me, or did you reverse your 1/4" and 1/8" terminology though?

May 31, 2013 11:40 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Nope, it's just you.

May 31, 2013 1:58 PM  
Blogger didymus said...

Another tid bit of nerdism:
When wrapping the cord that is permanently attached to the device, always make the first wrap loose. So as not to put undo strain on the part of the cord that goes into the device. Even though that end is usually 'reinforced'. That is the most common area of breakage on permanently mounted cords.

May 31, 2013 7:33 PM  
Blogger Brian Harris said...

I just read in a magazine (WIRED, Mental Floss?) the following:

Every cell in your body has a 3 foot chain of DNA. If it gets tangled (literally) things get messy (literally).

Nature's simple solution: A loop at each end.

The experiment: Kids were given boxes of string to play with. Some boxes had straight string. Some had string that ended with loops.

The looped string was 1/10th as likely to tangle.

Applicable here? I dunno. Interesting? Kinda'.

June 01, 2013 10:40 PM  
Blogger DLM said...

The best $7 shipped I've ever spent on Amazon!

June 03, 2013 9:55 AM  
Blogger Kelvin Pinney said...

I just put each cable in a zippered ziplock bag.

June 03, 2013 12:52 PM  
Blogger londonblue007 said...

I've been coiling my cables for years in the over-under method, even my smaller cables, like 1 meter USB cables. I've had 200ft microphone cables uncoil perfectly that way. My wife hasn't figured it out yet, so I get piles of extension chords laying around with a note "coil me". Which I will happily do.
Quick Tip - If your cable or chord is stiff and won't coil nicely because it is new... uncoil it and lay it out as straight as you can on a driveway for a few hours in the sun to "bake" the "tightness" out of the cable. An old roadie taught me that trick for 10 gauge power cables. Works great on anything. Garden Hoses too :)

June 07, 2013 3:38 PM  
OpenID fingle said...

If you ever find yourself working a strike with professional stagehands, and you hear someone yell "What, are you NEW?!?" then you're probably coiling a cable in an unpleasing fashion. A good policy when working for others is to ask the stupid questions early and often!

June 11, 2013 1:41 PM  
Blogger Dave-Keller said...

Thanks for the tip on the Amazon wire ties! I love these and had been buying them through a local office supply place for a LOT more money.
Twitter: @cahootograph

June 24, 2013 9:45 AM  

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